James 2:14-26 is a really tough text. Actually, it’s really not except for how we want to balance things Paul has said with the things James has said. There area few ways we can approach this.
1. The first way we can look at this is to say either Paul or James is wrong. Martin Luther took this approach, suggesting that James was a lesser book in the Canon or Scripture, or maybe didn’t even belong in the Bible. This is really not a good approach. If I were to take this approach, every book that contains a verse about sin I want to commit would be removed from the Bible. Leaving me with about two books. This is what people often what to do with Old Testament books; that is, they reduce them to a lesser authoritative position. Others will elevate the quotes from Jesus’ earthy ministry above the rest of the biblical books, forgetting that Jesus is indeed the Word. I do not recommend this approach and would encourage you to avoid this false dichotomy.
2. The next approach is to get loose with the words or historical facts. “Well, one person really means this and the other person really means that.” I’ve been guilty of this at times (especially with this section of James.) This is how society will try to change the meaning of homosexuality, among other things in the Bible. Or if the words aren’t toyed with, sometimes the historical reality is changed. This is how we get some far-fetched story about a gate called the Needle Gate that was short and narrow. As this urban legend goes, people would have to unload their camels to get through the needle gate. Archaeologists have never found the needle gate. In addition, Jesus was making an impossible point about something that couldn’t happen at all, not something that was simply an inconvenience. I think we need to be careful not to do this with words like Faith, Works, Justification, and Salvation as Paul and James discuss them. Let’s be honest with the words and context (although this doesn’t mean there may be some difference. It just means, let’s be honest.)
3. Or we can approach this as it is. James and Paul are in agreement, as they were both inspired by the same Holy Spirit. Any confusion on this matter is likely found on our part. But how can this be? I’ll see if I can get to the heart of the confusion.
First, let’s look at the Scriptures that seem to be in disagreement.
James 2:24. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
James 2:26. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
(Paul) Romans 3:28. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart fro works of the law.”
(Paul) Romans 4:2-5. “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but now before God. For what does the Scripture say? ”Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work by trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,"
(Paul) Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
There is an apparent conflict, isn’t there? Is there? Are you sure? We make the same trouble with our language too (especially if we hold a reformed theological view of salvation.) Let me see if I can show you.
How often do we say, “There’s nothing you can do to earn your salvation?” (This would be a correct statement.) But then we tell the person who said the ’sinner’s prayer’ and never, ever, not even once, did another thing regarding God or demonstrated a changed life, “that’s not enough.” (This would also likely be a correct statement.) The person would say, but if I have to do more, aren’t I doing some kind of work? From an outside perspective, we have contradicted ourselves. Or have we?
The difficulty with the Paul vs. James contradiction is that we often start from Paul’s viewpoint. We read Paul and think we understand what Paul is saying. (Peter warns us that Paul can be hard to understand in 2 Peter 3:16.) Then we try to read James into our understanding of Paul’s position. I would like to suggest that we instead try starting from James' position (which is much easier to grasp) and see if our understanding can be read back into Paul’s position.
What is James’ position? That the believer should demonstrate some kind of changed life that would likely demonstrate belief and faith. He’s arguing against cheap grace and easy-believism. Is that so much of a stretch? After all, didn’t Jesus often talk about baring fruit? Your remember? "You will recognize them by their fruit. . . " (Matthew 7 and Luke 8). ‘The ax is already at the root of the tree that doesn’t bare fruit. . . (Matthew 3). Or what about that fig tree that didn’t have any fruit (Mark 11). But Jesus (or James or Paul for that matter) is not saying you have to produce fruit in order to be saved. Instead, it should be expected that a justified, saved, person of faith produces fruit. They go together as part of the definition.
James is a simple writer, so it helps to get a grasp of faith and salvation from this position. Now read James’ position and definition into Paul’s argument?
If we understand that Paul has the same justified, saved person who produces fruit in mind when he talks about salvation, it becomes clear. Still, he’s not saying we have to do work to earn salvation, but he does seem to believe that the believer does stuff as a result of his or her regeneration. This is how Paul can get away with all those imperative statements he makes about how a believer should live. And look again at one of the above verses with this in mind and in the proper context
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Paul, Ephesians 2:8-10, emphasis added.)
I hope this helps clarify the apparent controversy.
And what should we take away from this? There is a great question in the application section of the Serendipity Study Bible on this text. It reads,
“If you were arrested for being a Christian, what evidence would be used to prove the point?”
Does your life reflect Jesus in such a way that you might be accused to live as a Christian? Or will people say, “He talks a good game but he doesn’t walk the walk.”